The Disgrace of Gijón: A modern history lesson in Volgograd

From a dour draw to a willing 1-0 loss and an easier route, Russia has seen some questionable group games

From a historic win for West Germany in Spain to France’s scoreless draw with Denmark, Japan’s acceptance of a loss to Poland and concluding with England B vs Belgium B, the last few days have raised eyebrows across the world.

The Disgrace of Gijón

There are just some World Cup matches that are so iconic they go down in the annals, given a nickname for their notoriety, from the Miracle of Bern to the Battle of Santiago as well as the Disgrace of Gijón. Whilst many have encountered Wunder von Bern when Sepp Herberger’s West Germany bested Gusztáv SebesGolden Team in the 1954 final or the bloodbath in the Chilean capital in ’62, Gijón is often overlooked.

The match a sham that saw the structure of group games at major tournaments change to avoid collusion, so that no other nation would be knocked out as Algeria were in Spain. The tournament, España 82, was the last of three World Cups to be staged over two group rounds before the semi-finals – and you thought trying to work out the ranking of third placed teams two years ago was a pain. Algeria had pulled off a major upset in their first outing in Spain, besting West Germany before losing to Austria and squeezing past Chile. Having played in Oviedo on the Thursday, Algeria had to wait until the next day to learn their fate in the group – if Germany were to win by a goal or two, they would be out but a bigger margin of victory would still see Algeria through.

When Austria met West Germany in the previous edition of the tournament, it was one for the ages, Hans Krankl’s second half brace enough to see Austria best the Germans for the first time 47 years. West Germany – then reigning champions – knocked-out of the tournament in Argentina, for the Austrians the match became Das Wunder von Córdoba, for Germany it was Die Schmach von Córdoba (the Disgrace of Córdoba).

The match not without its historical significance, the Anschluss only 40 years prior, the meeting of the two nations far from straight-forward. In the wake of Córdoba with the group delicately poised many fans hoped for a memorable match, and that was exactly what they got for all the wrong reasons.

The match started in terrific fashion, Germany chomping at the bit for a goal and it soon came when Horst Hrubesch got the better of Friedrich Koncilia ten minutes in, then nothing. The goal had killed the game, Austria were uninterested in finding an equaliser and the West Germans had few ideas about adding a second, the result would see both teams through to the next stage – dumping Algeria out in the process – and that was fine by both. The ball was passed between players in their own half, routinely back to the goalkeeper then back out a little way, neither wanted to attack, the odd chance for either was extravagantly missed. It’s of little surprise that the match is remembered as Nichtangriffspakt von Gijón (Non-aggression pact of Gijón) in German.

Whilst the 22 men on the pitch were happy with what was happening, commentators fast grew uneasy, the fans in the stands made their discontent known, the Spanish fans chanting, “Fuera, fuera!” (“Out, out!”) and “Argelia, Argelia!” (“Algeria, Algeria!”) as Algerian supporters waved banknotes at the players.

In not entirely unexpected fashion, when the Algerians lodged official complaints FIFA found the two teams involved guilty of no wrongdoing, no rules technically broken, the result allowed to stand. The only carrot for Algeria that Austria stumbled in the next round and West Germany were denied in the final, simultaneous kick-offs in future tournaments intended to stop another Disgrace from happening.

From Asturias to Moscow

Fast forward to this summer. Tuesday the 26 June, the World Cup is into its second day of group deciding games and France are playing out the first 0-0 of the tournament with Denmark. The commentators are bored, the football is bad, neither side is attacking well and the comments begin… Peru are beating Australia in Sochi, as it stands both the French and the Danes are going through, maybe there was a word at the break. Maybe a nod of the head or wink of the eye, the implications of Gijón left to be interpreted.

The only problem with the suggestion? It completely ignored the glaringly obvious fact that neither France of Denmark had done a whole lot of anything in the tournament yet. A questionable penalty and own goal enough for France to claim their first win of the tournament before a poached Kylian Mbappé strike had knocked Peru out of the competition with a game still to play. For the Danes it had been a case of defence over attack, Yussuf Poulsen’s goal enough to see them passed Peru in a match they arguably should have lost. Their second outing saw a belter from Christian Eriksen before Australia found their rhythm, another dubious penalty awarded and a deserved point for the Socceroos but again, Denmark had offered little in attack and been lucky to come away with a point.

Neither team had looked like they wanted or really knew how to attack, yet luck had been on their side, France had already booked their spot in the next round and Denmark realistically only needed Peru to do them a favour, something La Blanquirroja looked well capable of doing against an Australian team who couldn’t find the back of the net from open play. Had there been a wink, a subtle handshake? The football didn’t suggest so, if it was a match about avoiding injury or bookings, Thomas Delaney clearly hadn’t gotten the memo.

In opting to rest Paul Pogba – a booking away from a suspension – Didier Deschamps had crippled France’s midfield. The strike partnership of Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud simply didn’t work, the two with no natural understanding, Les Bleus only starting to look dangerous when Nabil Fekir entered the fray 68 minutes in.

Overt

Jump forward two days and suddenly there could be no doubt about a match devolving into a farce, Japan and Poland creating their own Disgrace of Volgograd. The city that had seen the largest and bloodiest battle in history became a land of placidity for the two teams in Group H. In a group where the only certainly was that Poland were going home, Japan and Senegal had the better of it in the first halves of their respective matches, Eiji Kawashima called into action once to make a fine save. The second half saw Poland emboldened, playing their best football of the tournament – a minor feat in truth – and take the advantage through Jan Bednarek.

With the group hanging in the balance, Poland searched for a second. Despite having seen little in the way of chances, Colombia found a goal in Samara courtesy of Yerry Mina, again, Japan were in place to progress. Senegal were going out and they soon became frantic, more urgency in their game but, realistically, David Ospina had little to worry about. 450 miles north east in Volgograd something strange was happening, the ball passed between players who seemed bored, walking around. The scenes were reminiscent of those from Gijón 36 years prior, concede again and Japan were out, pick up two more bookings and there would be a drawing of lots. The Japanese players didn’t want to attack for fear of leaving themselves exposed, unwilling to go into any tackles lest they damage their fair play points. For Poland, they had their three points, a conciliation to take home, Japan were fine with the loss, why rock the boat. For the best part of a quarter of an hour, the ball moved aimlessly around, the definition of anti-football, Senegal frantic but empty handed in Samara, the group decided.

After the match Japan head coach Akira Nishino admitted that he had instructed his players to settle for the 0-1 loss and “stay put” explaining that it was the first time he’d felt that way. Chalking it down to just something that happens at World Cups, he let the fate of his side hang on the result between Colombia and Senegal, though he was certain that his side had earned their place in the knock outs.

Lose, lose for the good of the draw

In the run-up to England’s final group game against Belgium, the group was already set, the two European sides knew they’d be progressing, Tunisia and Panama already set for the journey home. For the first time in living memory, England weren’t crossing everything that they’d reach the knock-outs before kick-off, rather they would be going into the match relaxed. The talk in the build-up had been about a tactical loss, taking a metaphorical dive to ensure they finished on the kinder side of the draw – avoiding the likes of Brazil and France. Japan would await the winner in Rostov-on-Don, Colombia would play the runner-up at the Otkritie the following day.

Coming into the match England topped the group on fair play, a draw enough to set up a meeting with Japan should they avoid a rash of bookings. Yellow cards for Leander Dendoncker and Youri Tielemans ensured the ball was firmly in England’s court. The football left something to be desired, Belgium B better than England B on the night but still, neither team looked to bothered about winning. Poor defending and a curled effort from Adnan Januzaj gave Belgium the advantage six minutes into the second half, the football remained dour.

Fans left uncertain as to whether the loss had actually been a win, a perceived "easier" route to the final England’s reward for failing to find a way past the Red Devils, though they didn’t look too hard. Belgium had the tougher route but the lower ranked opposition in the round of 16, they oddly didn’t seem too thrilled.

Although there was no collusion, both teams rotated heavily – though not without reason, a tournament more of a marathon than a sprit, injuries, fatigue and bookings something to be avoided. The match carried the scent of shame. For the fans in Kaliningrad – just shy of 34,000 recorded to have attended – the match couldn’t have been more of a let-down. The curious Russian exclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania hardly the easiest to reach in any event. Football matches can be disappointing in any circumstances though it’s rare than fans will make such a pilgrimage, bouncing around Eastern Europe to get to a match that neither team seems overly interested in winning.

Just like Japan and Poland, there were no rules broken but unlike Algeria and Senegal, no team was knocked out of the tournament because of it. It didn’t take long for the comments of, “Well, if England reach the final, no one will think anything of it.” to start, but the match still carries a certain stain for some.

Questions over what is and what isn’t sporting raised in Russia this summer.